With its royals, terrorists and concerns over appearance, Told By An Idiot's comedy And The Horse You Rode In at The Barbican couldn't be more topical if you stuffed it with hazelnuts, nougat and caramel then covered it in chocolate.
The plot is a multi-layered spread across time and space. A Lithuanian agent provocateur is tasked with a bombing in interwar London; a 1970s German version of Grace Brothers emporium is the target of both amateur and professional terrorists while in 17th century Venice, an Italian troupe of acrobats are held hostage while Louis XIV decides their fate.
The play starts inauspiciously. There's a throwaway reference to Alfred Hitchcock Presents before we are told the joke with the eponymous punchline in an Italian accent that competes in sheer godawfulness with Don Cheadle's Cockney effort. It gets a lot better as we are introduced to Frau Slocombe with her apocryphal pussy, the mincing Herr Humphries and the rest of the Grace Brothers crew before switching to London and the fake limb store of Verlock, a sleeper agent who gets his instructions via a chocolate cake wrapper and a parrot.
The five members of the ensemble frequently change characters, clothing, language and accents while the same set is similarly repurposed throughout to be (amongst other things) a lecture theatre, a small shop, a mountain range, a zoo and a cinema. There's good use of mime and theatrical trickery and anyone who has been to a Kneehigh Theatre production will want to check this one out.
What lets this play down is the philosophical and historical references which detract from the comedy and suspense. Some of the anachronistic touches (like Louis XIV referring to Stan Boardman or hearing messages on an answering machine) are inspired but the nods to Munich 1972, Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent, German author Gunter Grass and Baader-Meinhof will fly over most of the audience's heads. Youngsters probably won't get the Hitchcock or John Inman pastiches.
Thank you And The Horse You Rode In On for the chuckles but, like a disappointed pupil on exam results day, you're not as clever as you think you are.
And The Horse You Rode In On is at The Barbican until 14 May. More details here.
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